Driving is one of most heavily subsidized activities in U.S.


Published: Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 11:32 p.m.

Rick Drummond's very last budget message before he retired as Alachua County's manager had an all-too-familiar ring to it. Especially in regard to the county's road budget.

The county expects to have about $8 million from gasoline taxes this coming fiscal year, down nearly half a million from the current year.

And the county's road repair needs? Last time I checked it was about $380 million and rising.

"Over the last three decades, the cost of providing transportation system services has outpaced revenues collected from gas taxes," Drummond wrote. "This trend will continue. As cars continue to become more fuel-efficient and residents continue to choose alternative modes of transportation, the primary funding source for road repair and maintenance will continue to decline."

Which of course is why Alachua County commissioners want voters to take another crack at passing a transportation sales tax initiative in 2014. After the spectacular failure of last year's "asphalt only" sales tax bid, commissioners will presumably be a bit smarter next time around when it comes to getting buy-in from people who don't necessarily drive; transit users, cyclists, pedestrians and so on.

"Asphalt only" turned out to be a dumb campaign strategy. But perhaps it was useful to the extent that the strong negative vote helped to explode one of the more enduring but false myths of AutoAmerica.

Namely, that the public roads belong first and foremost to drivers because they're the ones who pay for the upkeep with their gas tax dollars.

Not even close.

I am especially sensitive to the pervasiveness of this mythology because as a commuter cyclist — and a "Share The Road" evangelist — I often get The Question, usually from drivers who consider bike lanes and other "multi-modal" frivolities a waste of their hard-earned money.

If you cyclists want to share the road, then how about paying your fair share?

To which I am tempted to respond: You first pal.

The truth is, driving is one of the most heavily subsidized activities in America. So-called welfare queens are pikers by comparison.

And Alachua County is hardly the only government that has seen its gas tax dollars lag far behind the expense of road maintenance.

"Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways," a recent study by the Tax Foundation revealed.

The state of Florida's gas tax pays for less than half of its highways budget.

And don't even get me started on the feds.

The federal gas tax raises about $34 billion a year. Congress spends about $78 billion each year on roads.

The feds cover their transportation shortfalls with debt, which we are all responsible for paying off, whether we drive or not.

States and local governments typically try to make up the difference with bonds, property taxes, sales taxes and other forms of "general revenue."

Which we all pay, whether we put the pedal to the metal or not.

Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge sharing the roads that I help pay for with people who drive cars. I'm a share-the-road kind of guy.

Still, this widespread misconception about who is paying for what tends to have a horribly warping effect on transportation policy decision making.

Witness the previous county commission majority's wrongheaded insistence that the needs of drivers must trump all other transportation priorities; transit, bikeways, sidewalks.

Which is certainly the reason the "asphalt only" sales tax initiative failed so spectacularly last year.

The good news is that the commission majority changed in the same election that saw the gas tax flop. Voters sent a message loud and clear. And to their credit, incoming county commissioners seem to grasp the new realities of transportation politics.

Traditionally, Gainesville voters can usually be counted upon to support new taxes for whatever purpose, while their distant neighbors in the suburbs, rural areas and small towns are notoriously tax averse, no matter the cause.

That even Gainesville voters wouldn't touch the transportation tax last year should have been a wake up call. Increasingly, Gainesville is a "complete streets" community — witness the explosive growth of RTS and the redesign of Main Street to be more bike and pedestrian friendly. City commissioners get that. At least three county commissioners also seem to have caught on.

The Road to Ruin is paved by a mythology that has run out of gas. Share The Road politics is key to this community's transportation future.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. He is now executive director of Bike Florida.

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